Title: Where the Boys Are (based on the novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout)
Genre: romantic comedy, coming-of-age
My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Plot: Four students from an all girls’ college head to Fort Lauderdale for spring break. *I’ll elaborate more below!
Movies like this were an absolute staple of my childhood. As both a latch-key kid and an only child, I made heavy use of the cable in my house. I hadn’t watched this in ages and decided to give it a go while Josh and Izzy were out of town.
This is an interesting film because it feels pretty dated and regressive in terms of how it handles sex and gender . And yet, it would have been fairly forward thinking for the times in how it allows its female characters to openly discuss sexuality. In 1960, when this film was released, America was on the brink of its sexual revolution, and this film is an early (albeit a bit clumsy) attempt to explore some of these new ideas.
Another odd thing is that the film has a bit of an identity crisis. On one hand, it’s totally a fun, frothy rom-com. The tank scene gets me every time! The camp value is high! On the other hand, it’s a rather grim morality tale, but more on that later.
What I love most about this film are the friendships among the four girls. Sure, they’re all boy crazy and they’re quick to ditch each other at the mere whiff of testosterone, but there is no cattiness or jealousy and they all seem to genuinely respect and care for one another.
I also love the costuming. I love travel movies from this era because it’s hilarious to see the absolutely outlandish amount of clothing the characters seem to have at their disposal despite having a suitcase the size of a postage stamp. These are supposed to be poor college kids and yet they don’t wear a single bathing suit or dress more than once in a week!
I also like that each girl gets her own distinct storyline and so that’s what I’m going to focus on for the remainder of this review!
Merritt (played by Dolores Hart)
If there is a main protagonist, Merritt’s definitely it. She’s incredibly bright, but still has a lot to learn about life and love. In the beginning of the movie she talks a lot of noise about sexual liberation, but it turns out to be all bark and no bite. She only appears worldly and wise, but has no practical experience with sex.
Merritt looks a bit like Grace Kelly’s slightly less beautiful sister and wears a mildly unflattering grandma bun for most of the film. Was that really in style? None of the other girls wear their hair like this and so I think it’s meant to convey something about her character – that she’s smart and bookish and no-nonsense.
Despite her geriatric hair, she catches the eye of a super suave Ivy Leaguer named Ryder Smith (indeed!). While her gal pals are swilling beers at dingy, crowded bars, this dude takes her to a swanky bar for cocktails. He’s also got keys to grandpa’s mansion and yacht…no big deal.
They hit it off right away. Ryder is clearly enamored with Merritt’s wit, and Merritt likes that he’s not intimidated by her and can keep up. Tension arises when Ryder’s ready to go all-the-way and, despite all her earlier bravado, Merritt’s not at all down for that. This causes Ryder some angst as he’d *really* like to get laid this week, but he also doesn’t want to stop spending time with Merritt. He decides to split the difference and hope that his bet pays off. **Spoiler alert – it doesn’t, but in the end it’s clear they’ve fallen in love and he’ll happily wait. It’s all pretty dumb, but definitely reflective of the mores of the era.
Tuggle (played by Paula Prentiss)
Perhaps my favorite character, Tuggle is openly looking to settle down and have babies and has absolutely no interest in hanky-panky before marriage. I know this doesn’t make her sound all that appealing, but what’s great about Tuggle is that she knows what she wants and doesn’t waver from her convictions. She’s honest, loyal and funny and definitely someone you’d want as your gal pal.
Tuggle is a gorgeous, statuesque brunette, but I think we’re meant to find her a bit plain because she’s so tall and thin.
Her love interest is a lanky goof nicknamed TV (journalism major?). Like Merritt and Ryder, they have instant and believable chemistry. And like Ryder, TV is ready for some spring break action. Unlike Merritt, however, we know that Tuggle is an absolute no-go in that department. TV continues to hang around because he enjoys Tuggle’s company, but one night he very cruelly ditches her for another woman whom he believes is a ‘sure thing’. I think the only thing that makes this moment *somewhat* forgivable (and he is forgiven) is that he’s clearly wasted and is truly and deeply remorseful.
Angie (played by Connie Francis)
Angie wins the award for the cutest character with the lamest storyline. She’s bubbly, funny, and has a totally bangin’ figure. Again, the audience is asked to suspend all credulity and believe that she can’t attract a guy because she’s athletic and, therefore, unattractive. Right….
She finally lands a date with Basil, a cranky, half-blind jazz musician who only grudgingly agrees to go out with her because he was rejected by her friends. What a catch. I really hate this storyline!
Melanie (played by Yvette Mimieux)
Oh, Melanie, the most pathetic of all the characters and perhaps the most problematic for modern audiences
Melanie is a super sweet, but incredibly naive girl who hopes to land an Ivy Leaguer while on vacation. She is an absolutely gorgeous blond and has no trouble attracting boys left and right. The actress absolutely Melanie’s childish neediness.
*Side note: you MUST see Yvette Mimieux in Light in the Piazza.
Inspired by Merritt’s earlier talk about sex, Melanie loses her virginity right off the bat with Dill (the male names in this movie slay me!), but then moves on to his friend Franklin with whom she also has sex. She is convinced that they are in love until she arranges to meet Franklin in a motel room and he sends Dill in his place. Not only does she realize that they’ve both been using her for sex, but then Dill rapes her. Melanie is so traumatized and ashamed that she wanders into traffic and is nearly killed. It’s all very melodramatic! Luckily, her friends arrive in the nick of time. Still, it’s clear that Melanie has a long road ahead of her and may never fully recover (psychologically) from her spring break experiences.
The rather obvious interpretation of Melanie’s fate seems to be that her immoral behavior directly led to her shabby (and illegal!) treatment at the hands of Dill and Franklin. The implicit message of the movie is that good girls really don’t engage in hanky-panky and those who do are punished.
However, one could make a case that it’s a bit more nuanced than that. Melanie is painfully naive and deeply impressionable. She takes Merritt’s initial cavalier speech about sex at face value, not realizing that it’s all just theoretical pontificating at that point. Melanie is so inexperienced in the ways of the world that she confuses intimacy for love. She can’t see that these men don’t actually care for her even though it’s painfully obvious. Her intense need to catch a man on this trip also makes her desperate and reckless. As a result, I think her fate is more a condemnation of those qualities than of her sexual behavior. Furthermore, Dill’s actions are clearly condemned by the characters and it seems he may even face some sort of consequences from law enforcement. I think the movie is actually advocating for girls to be more educated about sex as it’s clear that, in this case, ignorance is not bliss.
I also believe the film is, in its ham-fisted way, more specifically condemning underage partying and casual sex. Melanie is one of only two main characters who actually drinks to the point of intoxication. It’s clear we’re meant to see that excessive drinking leads to bad choices. (Duh, right? But at least the film even acknowledges that college kids drink!) Alcohol makes Melanie an even poorer judge of character than she already is, and it makes TV behave in an appallingly selfish manner. We only see the other girls slowly sipping drinks and the one time Merritt seems to be getting a little tipsy, she also seems on the verge of ignoring her own misgivings and giving in to Ryder’s desires. Ryder even takes the drink away from her because he can see it’s about to impair her judgment and he is a gentleman after all!
All in all, a flawed, but worthwhile movie! It’s not to be missed if you like campy 60s beach movies. It’s also a fascinating glimpse into the values of another era.
I’d love a sequel that fills us in on all these ladies post sexual revolution! I see Merritt recently separated from Ryder, and finding herself in Italy or Spain with a free spirited and super hot (but also totally age appropriate!) artist. I think she’ll totally end up back with Ryder, but only after a suitable period of exploration. Tuggle never actually married or had kids and is a high powered business executive contemplating retirement and reconciling herself to the path her life took. Angie is a famous singer trying to decide between two completely opposite suitors. (Spoiler alert: she doesn’t pick either one!) Melanie is a wealthy widow who suddenly finds herself raising her teenage granddaughter. She struggles to make a connection with the girl she barely knows as she comes to terms with her past mistakes. Damn, this sounds like a good movie!